As we drove up to the Maltz Jupiter Theatre Friday night there was a storm north, probably over Jensen Beach, and the night sky was crackling with constant cloud to cloud lightning in the distance. We seemed to be headed into its vortex which, in a way, I would describe the essence of Jon Robin Baitz' play, Other Desert Cities.
It was a pleasant surprise to see such a stimulating play at the Maltz Theatre, not that they haven't had such plays in the past, but we wish they would do more, this one in particular having the "look and feel" of the serious Palm Beach Dramaworks productions, including two actors who frequent the latter stage, the always dependable Cliff Burgess and the fabulous Angie Radosh. Add the other very competent actors, the set and staging, and the result is an evening of fine theatre
I'd almost call the play "Arthur Miller Lite" as it has many of the tragic elements of some of his plays -- families in weighty conflict -- but with comic elements as well, a tragicomedy of sorts. It is a Christmas get-together, which is supposed to be a wonderful time of the year, right? Yeah, "right" -- a perfect time for discord, especially when you put a dysfunctional family under the microscope.
Here we watch the Wyeth family in their home in the desert city of Palm Springs "welcoming" back one of their own who has strayed from the flock, Brooke, the daughter of Lyman Wyeth and his wife Polly. She has been away for six years. During that time she wrote and published a novel, but then was in and out of mental hospitals. Since her "recovery" and in the aftermath of a dissolving marriage, she has written a memoir that is about to be published, one that paints her parents in a very unforgivable and unfavorable light. They who live in a power-broker world, a well connected family, former friends of Nancy and Ronald Reagan, extremely wealthy and very conservative, set in their ways, and never expecting their only daughter to publicly expose family wounds.
Brooke's arrival and her project are the catalysts to begin the pot stirring on stage, and joining her parents (who were involved in television, she as a writer and he as an actor) are her brother Trip who produces reality television shows and Brooke's Aunt Silda, Polly's alcoholic sister, who is staying with the Wyeths now that she is out of rehab. Silda used to collaborate with Polly writing for TV as well.
So we have a bunch of writers getting together. What could be more fun with the potential for sharp, cutting dialogue than that? And in spite of Brooke's hope that the family will approve of her memoir -- her real purpose for visiting -- what hope is there for that as she blames them for one of the family secrets, her brother Henry's suicide? Henry had spent his teenage years rebelling against the family values, joining an anti-Vietnam war underground movement which culminated in the bombing (and a death) at an army recruiting center. Presumably, he jumped off a Seattle ferry, leaving suicide notes and for that Brooke intensely blames her parents. But there is much that Brooke does not know. This family, in fact, is shrouded in secrets.
As the play wears on, these other secrets are peeled away leaving the exposed, corrupted core of the family. Add to that the divergent political views, opposite polarities of the daughter and mother, and the action taking place during the time of the Iraq War -- the microcosm of the family war in "one desert city" against the macrocosm of carnage in "another desert city" -- and you have a play with lots of moving parts and things to think about.
It's also a play about writing. How much can a writer can step over the line of fiction into non-fiction, writing about characters who are close family? It reminds me a little of when Thomas Wolfe published Look Homeward Angel, a thinly disguisednovel of his family and town folk in Asheville, NC, which enraged the town folk and left him an outsider. It is one of my own constraints when writing, especially when I attempt any fiction as I always seem to circle back to childhood memories that are not too dissimilar from those Jon Robin Baitz writes about. At a certain point should I abandon self-censorship? Believe me, these were thoughts that went through my mind watching this play. And I think Baitz is as concerned about the issue of writing truths from one's experience fully conscious of the pain that might elicit.
So I take this play very personally and therefore why shouldn't I think it exceptional, especially as you often hear the question: where are the great new playwrights? My one regret is not having read this play first, as I think it is one of those plays which may be as good (or better?) in the reading. Ann (my wife) on the other hand, was not as impressed, especially after the first act with which she had difficulty connecting emotionally, and Ann has a very accurate emotional barometer. I sort of felt the same way at intermission, although on an intellectual level I profoundly connected -- so many elements of my childhood were stirred up. I'm not sure this disconnected emotional feel was the play itself, the acting, or the direction.
But before making some comments on those elements, I must say a few words about the set, the first one designed at the Maltz by Anne Mundell, a highly accomplished set designer and teacher of Scenic Design at Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama. If verisimilitude is the objective of a set, this one is over the top. It IS a desert home and one feels as if real people live there. It is also somewhat monochromatic, like the desert, with people living out their secrets there. Outstanding. And Cory Pattak took full advantage of lighting the extraordinary stage and capturing changing emotional moments.
The mother (Polly played by Susan Cella) and her daughter (Brooke played by Andrea Conte) perhaps have the most difficult roles in the play. Polly comes from Jewish roots, now transformed into a waspy, right wing wife of a former Ambassador, after a stint in Hollywood, a woman who now revels in her wealth and connections. Painfully she is also now saddled by an emotionally distraught daughter with whom she is so congenitally at odds. She has to deliver some of the more caustic lines in the play such as: "You can die from too much sensitivity. So much pressure to be fair. I hate being fair." Or when asked whether she is acting or not she replies "Acting is real -- the two are hardly mutually exclusive in this family." She plays Polly professionally but uninspiredly. Perhaps it is the role itself, a complex one of the controlling mother when juxtaposed to the other complicated roles on stage.
Andrea Conte's Brooke begins her role as an anxious, depressed, physically agitated young woman and then elevates it to an angry depressed person, with a certain shrillness about her portrait that was at times jarring, frightening. I don't know how she could have played the role any differently -- it was her yoke as written by Baitz -- and she was certainly credible, transforming herself into a "different Brooke" in the play's coda, an act of resignation and acceptance.
Angie Radosh who plays Polly's sister, Silda, inhabited a similar role as Claire in Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance. (In fact, I would be remiss in not noting the subtle tip of the hat by the playwright to Albee's play. When the father wants to send Brooke a check, support her in some way, Brooke protests having seen friends ruined by monetary interference from parents saying, "The balance is so delicate."). The two plays are eerily similar as are Radosh's role in each (although in Albee's play she is a drunk and here she is a rehabilitated drunk) but she is a consummate pro, having antipathy for Polly's values, leading her to prod her niece to take on the family in her memoir (secretly providing information for her). Silda, though, has a part in the family secrets as well, and when it is revealed, the look on Radosh's face is one of horror. Another outstanding performance by Angie Radosh.
Cliff Burgess is really coming into his own as one of the more versatile actors in South Florida. We've seen him play many roles, with his portrayal of Brooke's brother, Trip, and his unique relationship in the family dynamics (he was only five when his brother's suicide occurred, so of all the characters in the play he is the most "blameless") he comes across as the voice of reason in the play, a truth speaker, to his parents and to his sister. Not surprisingly, as he was a "privileged kid" his interests seem superficial, producing a TV show where real life people are "put on trial" and the jurors are celebrities. The perfect cynicism, carried off by Burgess depicting the way we live today along with his constant texting, even while speaking -- the modern day multitasker. But he's had his own secrets as well, revealed later in the play to his sister. A bravura performance by Burgess.
Richard Kline's performance as the patriarch of the family, Lyman, is spot on. He is a man of financial substance and conservative social connections, but truly supportive of his children (in surprising ways as well but no spoilers here), who bears the burden of the multiple layers of secrets, with a pleasantry in sync with his former profession of actor. He is the peacemaker in the family (as was my own father), always trying to use his skills as a former Ambassador (having been appointed to the position by his old buddy, Ronald Reagan), to reconcile differences between his daughter and his wife, and to get his daughter to accept the ways of the privileged, even offering to buy the home next door so she can leave Long Island for Palm Springs (failing to see the depth of Brooke's rebellion). Kline, who once had a regular role in the sitcom Three's Company, rises to the occasion in this serious drama.
I think this play is a director's nightmare. The play is long -- 2 hours plus an intermission -- and there is a lot of dialogue and raw emotion, and although only five characters, it is a crowded stage, so, unavoidably, there are times when actor's backs are to some part of the audience (especially ours as we were seated far stage left). The first act all seems to be about establishing the characters, not the explosive emotion of the second act, a fault of the play or the director? It's hard to tell. Still, Peter Flynn, who directed the Maltz's award-winning Man of La Mancha, keeps focused on the playwright's intention, so accurately summed up by a line from the play that Flynn quotes in his playbill commentary: Everything in life is about being seen, or not seen, and eventually, everything IS seen.
Indeed, the Maltz has done a very credible job with a very good play. Although upon exiting I heard someone say, "I wish they just did all musicals," for me, keep a fine play or two in the mix each season!